Goldstone and Gaza War II

War is about stopping the enemy. By the nature of the beast there is a tally of death and, when Israel is involved, hardly have hostilities broken out then claims come thick and fast that the tally of Israeli dead was way too little to justify the war. Stripped of polite camouflage, angst over the way Israel conducts itself in Gaza amounts to that. Too many Palestinians dead and not enough Jews means another 'crime' for Israel to fend off.

If media reports are reliable, commentators unerring, and the United Nations evenhanded, then 'disproportionate' is what Israel's armed forces do best. What vinegary words turn on them, what sourball gaze at Jews playing Goliath! Not enough of them, and too many killed in the enemy camp is the yardstick of right and wrong.

Assuredly, Gaza War I and the seeds sown by the Goldstone four have buttressed those delusions. For many, the meaning of 'disproportionate' boils down to violence against people they love, committed by people they love to hate. For them, the killing of one Hamas jihadist would be a victim of Israel too many.

Needless to say, you won't find this stated so baldly in the Goldstone Report. Although there might be something in the way the fact-finding crew couched their UN mandate. They "placed the civilian population the centre of concerns regarding the violations of international law."

Note, scarcely hidden in that statement, the 'Don't worry, Israel-will-be-found-guilty,' mantra. But it was the doings and sayings of members before they set out to gather facts that are more important. Here, on public display, were the sickened feelings of Professor Christine Chinkin, one of the Goldstone four: "Israel's bombardment of Gaza is not self-defense -- it's a war crime. The rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas... do not, in terms of scale and effect amount to an armed attack entitling Israel to rely on self-defense... Israel's actions amount to aggression, not self-defense."

The aversion is clear: even one Hamas jihadist would be a victim of Israel too many. But the due process of fact-finding lay before them, and with the solemn dignity befitting independent jurists, they did well to emerge with the promised verdicts.

Looking askew at the tally of civilians killed in Gaza (reputedly four-fifths of the total) the Goldstone Report declared Israel guilty on two counts: (1) Targeting civilians and (2) disproportionate force. The connectivity between the said crimes is important. Disproportionate attacks on objects nominated as civilian results in civilian deaths.

For Gaza War II, one expected different verdicts. This time, remember, Israel forswore a ground invasion of the strip and relied on pinpoint aerial attacks. Yet, this time from the court of popular opinion, came the rubber stamp verdict a la Goldstone. For its conduct in 'Operation Pillar of Defense' Israel was declared guilty of overkill. And faithful to the Goldstone spirit, the belligerent camps were equally bad. Both had meant to kill man, woman, and child.

For disproportion, how did Israel fare on the 'Pillar of Defense' scorecard? The ratio was 26:1 -- twenty six Palestinians killed for every Israeli. This was down from 100:1 in Gaza War I, and bettered the average for Israeli operations going back to 2001. The West Bank and Lebanon, remember, are other theatres where Israel has fought mini wars.

So what ratio would satisfy the world? How many dead Palestinians per Israeli would be acceptably proportionate? We know that's no easy question because we never get a straight answer. Not even John Dugard, the UN lawman, or 'rapporteur,' for the Palestinian territories, whose job entails throwing the book at Israel, will stick his neck out:

"It is not possible to adopt an armchair attitude in assessing Israel's response to suicide bombings and Palestinian violence. Israel is entitled to a wide margin of appreciation in its response. But, even allowing for this, it is suggested, on the basis of the evidence provided, that Israel's response to terror is disproportionate."

Professor Dugard is not to be blamed; how could he give a straight answer when there's none to give? The UN lawman knew that well, or his indictment would have guidelines. And the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia already told us that war crimes have to be carefully proved, one by one, case by case. No -- there's no objective yardstick for Israel to meet.

Into this opportunistic gap stepped the brigade of Israel-defamers, the 'Lawfarers.' Five units of the brigade, with names that fairly give away the game, fed the Goldstone fact-finders with Israeli crimes. Among them we find the Central Commission for Documentation and Pursuit of Israeli War Criminals, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Small wonder that Goldstone would later wake up and absolve Israel of targeting civilians: "Had I known then what I know now..."

What does he know now? Has anyone dared ask? Whatever it is, three boxes hold the clue. They're the boxes that would give Israel-defamers the right to shout, 'Crimes against humanity!' They're to be found in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols -- treaties designed to limit war's barbarity. The boxes require military people to make a distinction between combatants, who may lawfully be attacked, and civilians who may not, unless and for such time as a 'civilian' directly participates in hostilities. And there lies the rub. What is meant by 'directly participate?'

To target a 'civilian' in Gaza and keep within the law, Israel must tick three boxes. (1) The target was participating in hostilities; (2) the participation was direct; and (3) the direct participation had not ceased. Think about that. If the civilian had been holding a weapon, but then put it down, Israel may not target him or her. It must wait until such time as the target picks up the weapon.

So, three boxes have to be ticked before firing off a shot in anger. And even then we are not quite ready. 'Directness of participation' should not be understood too broadly. Not every activity carried out in war can be construed as a hostile act. The situation of the victim at the time of being shot decides whether combatant or not. Even membership of Hamas is not by itself good enough proof that a target is a lawful one.

So, when Goldstone fact-finders took the word of NGOs, and declared that 80% of Israel's victims were civilians, we know how the count was conducted -- or should have been. Case by case the compiler had to tick three boxes. If one or more was empty it would mean that a civilian had been killed, and a war crime committed. Only then is the people's court entitled to pronounce 'crime against humanity.'

So when a Noam Chomsky, or a Norman Finkelstein, or a Robert Fisk call the IDF war criminals, we know what they mean. Somewhere, someone failed to tick all three boxes before killing a Palestinian in battle.

And what of the Good Ship Goldstone? All that remains is a wreck that dips and bobs but even now remains afloat, causing hazard. Quite how to dispose of the derelict no one knows. It seems destined to drift to a final resting place in UN archives.